Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Filling in the Middle of the Map II


It was a horrible night’s sleep, the train bucking and heaving like one of the horses out on the Steppe.  (Our guidebook had predicted this and had recommended sleeping pills.)  I passed the morning horizontal in my berth, reading until I needed to shut my eyes again.  (Considering the landscape, it would have been easy to count sheep, though I’d have had better luck in counting the water bottles littering the rails, whose number seemed infinite.)  It was only after lunch that I stretched my legs and disembarked at Turkistan.  

This modest sized town had built around the burial site for the great Sufi mystic Kozha Akhmed Yasaui who taught here in the 12th century.  His teachings were made accessible to the common people in the form of poems, yet his greatest admirer wasn’t common at all.  Finding only a modest tomb here when he passed through in 1389, the ruler Timur  (known more widely as Tamerlane) ordered the construction of the current mausoleum, though it went uncompleted at the time of his death.  This unfinished quality is one of the structure’s greatest charms, with the spiky appearance of ancient scaffolding, and swallows flying in and out of small holes in the tile.  Despite its rough appearance, the structure is considered the first, and one of the best, examples of Timurid architecture, rivaling the more polished structures of Samarkand to come.  This building style travelled south to inspire the Moghuls of India, whose Taj Mahal was a masterful monument to the unboundless expression of love.  To add a flourish of delicious irony to the scene , a wedding party was busy photographing themselves in front of a stretch Hummer, which are obnoxiously ostentatious on the streets of LA, but looked even more ridiculous out here on the steppe.

We wandered the site, finding each of its faces equally picturesque (which could be said about all the important holy sites in Central Asian), the changes in light creating subtle shifts in the shades in the blue of tile.   Our final stop was the Underground Mosque, where Yasaui had spent much of his final years.  There was a complexity to the simple honeycomb of interconnected chambers, the centerpiece being the sunken room where the poet had pulled words from the darkness, which continue to teach into the current age. 

It was raining the following day in Tashkent.  In this weather, the plain white facades of the Soviet-era buildings betrayed their recent age, little surprise considering that a powerful 1966 earthquake had left 300,000 homeless. (Soviet censorship left no record of the number of fatalities.)  It was at the Earthquake Memorial where we began our visit, the rain running through the crack that stretched across the surface of the plaza from a pair of Soviet-era figures projecting strength.

Even in the rain, Tashkent was an attractive city.  Stalinist buildings on one block, followed by a style softer and prettily European.   Most of all were the trees that lined every street: bigger, older plane trees near the center, the newer sections shaded with poplars.  The gloom of the sky was befitting more the Soviet era, so it was that to which my mind was fixed and stayed through most of the day.  But the faces around me were certainly more Asiatic than they had been in Kazakhstan, and the Caucasian Russians from beyond the steppe were in little evidence here.

A handful of these people carefully trod the slippery marble of the Khast Imom Square, which reflected perfectly the flanking mosque and madrassa.  A number of people had set up shops in the former student cubicles, selling carpets and clothing and felt hats.  I bought a puzzle-like bookstand from one, which could be manipulated into various shapes and sizes, even for an iPad.  Yet it was I who was truly manipulated, as I found the same item next door, at a much better price. 

I’m not usually much of a shopper, but in the spirit of the Silk Road I felt the need to buy trinkets along the way, as if picking up breadcrumbs.  My main take-away at the central market was my life I suppose, crossing six lanes of fast moving traffic.  (I tried to find in vain the punchline to what could become a classic Russian joke: “Why did the Chechen cross the road?”)  Other than that, I attended to the needs of the belly.  The aroma of fresh flatbread was too tempting to resist.  A seller handed us one fresh from the oven while behind him, others previously baked stood vertically in a cabinet like a collection of old books.   We loaded up for our continuing journey by buying cashews and other nuts from a seller in the domed court the serves as the heart of the market.  How lucky we were, I thought, as our own trip was merely a fraction of what the full China to Europe expedition would have taken.  Even by rail a traveler could expect two full weeks, four if by ship.  A minor investment, considering the eighteen months it had taken for the previous millennium. 

As LYL collected our booty, I peered over the railing at the floor below, littered with the jigsaw puzzle pieces of cow and sheep and chicken.  (It reminded me a visit to deep China twenty years before, though it was the terror in the eyes of the living animals, all too aware of their fate, that led me to vegetarianism, since lapsed.)  Again, how lucky, how spoiled, we were, to be spared all this horror and gore in our comfy dining car.  Just then, a pair of blind men strolled past, arms around each other, in song.    

We descended eventually into the city’s famous metro system, then embarked and disembarked at a handful of stations.  Each stop of the 29 stops on the line had its own unique design, from Islam to Baroque to Space Age.  Photography of these true works of art was prohibited as they are considered military installations, although plenty of photos could be found online.   In riding along, admiring each of the stops, you found that it truly was the journey, not the destination. 

After lunch at Pilgrim (the design of which was the only thing “Silk Road’ about the post-quake city, though the wifi too proved nomadic, wandering here, wandering there.), we walked through a park whose colorful trees defied the gloom of the day.  A handful of families in smart dress were paying homage to deceased ancestors at the Crying Mother Monument built to honor the 400,000 Uzbeks killed in the Second World War.  As in all Soviet wars, the death tolls were particularly high amongst recruits from the rural minority poor, though I suppose that was equally true worldwide.  These thoughts of war reminded me of why the name Tashkent seemed so familiar, less for the Silk Road, as for news reports sent from their during the first, heavily televised Iraq debacle.   I remembered well Christiane Amanpour reportage from here, probably fresh in mind since I happened to see her on a television monitor in the Seoul airport a few days before.  The US military used bases in Uzbekistan during the their war in Afghanistan, though this relationship was terminated after a 2005 massacre in Andijan.   (There was a similar agreement in Kazakhstan, and upon the eventual removal of US troops at the end of major operations in 2014, their GDP dropped 3%.)

I pondered this all as I walked past the massive governmental buildings at the monument’s far end.  Where politicians find comfort in the self-aggrandizement of such structures, the common people find it in art and music.  Luckily for us, we’d get a taste in a modest hall, where a tuxedo-clad orchestra played through a number of local and European standards on folk instruments. It was a wonderful blend of folk Uzbek and the high culture of the Russian orchestra.  Music is the heart of any culture; it is there in the religion, in the festivals, in the tales of the storytellers, in the rhythm of the man at work.  Most of all, it is in the imagination, offering a promise of the delights to come. 

On the turntable:  Devo, "EZ Listening Disc"

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